18. Dan

A few posts ago, something very cool happened — two amazing humans I’d never met reached out to me. One was Lucy from @StreetsofMelbourne, an incredibly talented and generous photographer whose photos feature on this post. The other was, Dan from Open Canvas. I met Dan for coffee before work on a Monday morning. I was sleep deprived and irritable, having just received a public transport fine. Five minutes into our conversation, I forgot about my Monday morning-itis and instead, remembered why I love this project. Here was someone who, when confronted with a social issue, didn’t bury his head in the sand. Instead, Dan jumped into the social enterprise scene head-first to create a solution. So, thank you Dan for all that you do through Open Canvas, for genuinely caring about the outcomes for those you work with, for having the courage to dive into something new so wholeheartedly and for turning the start of my week around! 

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Open Canvas uses art as a force for social change. We exist to create opportunities for people who have come from adversity — people who are homeless, people who have a disability and people who have experienced addiction or mental health issues.

Artists from these backgrounds may have talent, but they are unable to earn a livelihood.

One of our artists, Max, has lived on the streets. Another, Yvonne suffers from an anxiety disorder, so rarely leaves the house. Charmaine is also housebound. They all have a wonderful body of work, but they don’t have the capacity to earn a living due to their financial situation, mental health, disability or lack of connectivity. Open Canvas removes these barriers.

If they can’t afford to get their work photographed and posted online, we’ll help with that. If they can’t afford a good drawing pad for their next piece, we’ll help with that. If they can’t get out of the house to speak to people about their art, we’ll go to them and help with that!

We connect these artists to a world of customers through our website and through exhibitions and events. We’re now exploring other opportunities to provide our artists with more diverse options for employment and fulfillment.

My background isn’t in art. Or in homelessness. Or in disability. Or in mental health.

But, the issue of homelessness really gets me down. I walked past three homeless people on my way to meet you from Melbourne Central Station this morning.

The idea for Open Canvas came about because every day on my way to work, I walked past an artist on the steps of Parliament Station. He was creating some really beautiful art. Around the same time, I came across the organisation, HoMie, who had profiled another artist who was homeless. I started to wonder where I could buy their art and realised it’s not easy.  I wanted to do something to change that.

Starting out was quite daunting. I wasn’t sure how I would engage, and I’m forever grateful for the advice of John Enticott from St Kilda Community Housing who suggested I work with reputable organisations to reach people in need. He knew that trust would be a real issue for these artists. Those with backgrounds of adversity, have been beaten down a lot. So if someone came along and offered to sell their art, they would of course question the motivation.

So, we engage with credible organisations like the Salvation Army and MS Victoria to discover new artists. Invariably these organisations run art therapy programs and while the therapeutic component is so vital, there often isn’t anything beyond that for those who display real talent. We want to offer them an ongoing, sustainable livelihood in exchange for their work.

These organisations have been really receptive. Yes, we are offering their clients the opportunity to connect to a marketplace, but I think it’s bigger than this. These organisations want their clients to reconnect with society and art is such a great way to do that. If we sell an artist’s piece, it’s a demonstration that someone appreciates their work. It helps them find a sense of purpose in their craft.

We are working with around 30 artists at the moment. Some are super talented, others have raw talent that hasn’t yet been developed.

Charmaine’s paintings, for example, are just exquisite. They’ve been gathering dust for the past ten years because she’s been unable to leave the house. The other day we sold a piece of her work for a great price. She said that she was going to go out and buy some lipstick that she hadn’t been able to afford for years. To me, that comment was so humbling and so significant on so many levels. It shows that she’s proud. She’s been so isolated but now she wants to present herself to the world again. It will also obviously help her pay her giant pile of outstanding bills. Ultimately, she helped herself through her own piece of work.

The ever lasting debate with homelessness is whether or not you put money in their cup. It’s such a tough decision. I think that when people say they don’t want to give a handout, it’s because a handout isn’t empowering. Open Canvas doesn’t give handouts. The majority of profits flow back to the artist, but they’re doing the tough work. They’re earning that money.

Open Canvas demonstrates that people who have experienced homelessness or disadvantage have something to offer society. They are human beings. They have talent and they want to utilise their skills.

There is so much misunderstanding and judgement pointed at the people we work with. So many of the people I speak to have been pushed out of a home through domestic violence or a relationship breakdown. The other issues — drug and alcohol abuse, mental health issues — they flow from there. Their current situation wasn’t a choice. It’s so hard for those of us who grew up in a stable home with plenty of opportunity to understand.

For me, working with the artists has been a privilege. I’ve become very close to them and some have even met my son. Sometimes, I’ll be the only person that they see in weeks.

I hope in the near future we have influenced a group of these artists to believe that art could be a sustainable livelihood for them.

I hope we have built a community of like-minded experts around us. It’s amazing how a simple connection with a person can translate into results for our artists. That’s when the magic happens.

And finally, I’d like to be able to work on Open Canvas full time. At the moment it’s a side project for me, my wife, Jess and our other business partner, Felicity. There are a lot of late nights and weekends spent working. But when you ring up an artist to tell them you’ve sold another one of their works — their gratitude and the impact this has, makes taking photos at 2am when you’ve got to get up at 6am, worth it.”


Photography: Lucy Bastick from @StreetsofMelbourne

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